School children will head back to early morning bus stops in less than a week.
Recent tragedies in Indiana and other parts of the country highlight the need for everyone to be extra cautious during those dark hours.
Even here in Henry County, some morning commuters seem to think they can ignore the stop sign on the side of a school bus.
The “stop arm” and red flashing lights mean children are getting on or off the bus. Those signals are in place to stop traffic until the kids are safely out of the road.
Shenandoah School Corporation Superintendent Ron Green gets one or two calls every week about people passing buses while the stop arm is out.
“All of these violations are reported to the police,” Green said. “The police do a good job in trying to track down the offenders.”
Along with stop arms and warning lights that activate to signal traffic from both directions, Shenandoah buses on highway routes also have alternating head lamps designed to make the bus more visible to oncoming traffic.
Shenandoah High School is located on U.S. Hwy 36 and many students live on that highway.
All traffic on U.S. Hwy 36 must stop whenever red lights are flashing on the school bus because there is no divider between the eastbound and westbound lanes.
“Our drivers do their best to look out for other drivers who may not be following safe driving procedures,” Green said.
Green said the problem is clear: drivers who are aggressive and/or distracted do not take the time to consider the potential ramifications of their bad driving when close to a school bus.
“If people see a school bus, they should know children are close by. They need to slow down, put their phones down or quit doing whatever else might be causing their distracted state,” Green said. “They need to help schools and parents in being concerned about the safety and welfare of all children.”
Shenandoah school bus drivers get continuous training in safety procedures and pass that knowledge on to the students riding their buses.
Green said Shenandoah will continue to look at its safety procedures and will make changes when SSC school bus drivers believe they are needed.
“We ask everyone else on the road to strongly consider doing the same with their driving habits,” he said.
The Knightstown community in southwestern Henry County also has a problem with drivers ignoring school buses.
Russell Spiker, the transportation director at Charles A. Beard Memorial School Corporation, said this has been a significant concern for many years.
“People ignoring stop arms is a huge safety risk to students,” Spiker said. “It happens way too often.”
Spiker said CAB bus drivers call in vehicle descriptions whenever someone drives through the stop sign. The information is then relayed to local law enforcement who work to locate the vehicle.
The CAB school district is constantly looking at new equipment, trainings and protocols to do everything they can to make transportation for students as safe as it can possibly be, Spiker said.
“The biggest issue and the best way to accomplish that is if people simply do not drive distracted,” Spiker said.
Like Shenandoah and Knightstown’s high schools, Tri Elementary and Junior-Senior High Schools also sit on a highway.
South Henry School Corporation Superintendent Wes Hammond said his drivers had a higher than usual number of stop arm violations this school year.
“These violations have been steadily increasing over the last few years which is of great concern,” Hammond said.
As in other Henry County school districts, South Henry bus drivers try to get license plate numbers of people who violate the law. They then report those to the sheriff’s department.
“We are considering adding stop arm cameras that can record license plate numbers of offenders on future bus purchases,” Hammond said. “As well as possibly placing them on current buses that have experienced the highest degree of violations.”
Hammond said everyone should understand school buses carry children as young as five years old. It can be difficult to predict what these kids might do while they are crossing the street.
“Extra caution should be observed whenever a school bus is stopped and dropping off or picking up children,” he said. “If traffic is completely stopped, there should be almost no possibility of an accident occurring.”
One of South Henry’s regular bus drivers, Ron Chew, is also the president of the Indiana State School Bus Drivers Association.
Chew said one of the biggest problems in Indiana is the inconsistency from community to community of people getting ticketed for ignoring a stopped school bus.
Chew said even when a school corporation has stop arm cameras on their buses, like Nettle Creek School Corporation in Hagerstown, some county prosecutors will not allow that information when deciding whether or not to file charges.
“Some counties will only issue citations if a police officer observes the violation,” Chew said.
Henry County, on the other hand, allows the school bus driver to report the license plate number of the offending vehicle and a description of the vehicle, driver, etc., if someone drives past a stopped bus.
“School bus drivers appreciate that,” Chew said.
Chew hopes state lawmakers will be aggressive in making changes to bring statewide continuity to the law.
He pointed out an October accident in Fulton County that killed three children getting on the bus, followed within the same week by at least five other incidents nationwide, has put more emphasis on the problem of drivers passing stopped school buses.
The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) surveyed each state in 2018 to get an idea of the number of drivers who illegally pass school bus stop arms.
According to that survey, Indiana bus drivers recorded more than 3,000 people ignoring the stop sign while kids were getting on or off the bus.
Most of the people who drove through the stop arm were on the left side of the bus, although 59 were reported passing the bus on the right side – the side where children are actually getting on and off the bus.
“A lot of drivers do not like to be behind or stop for a school bus, and it seems everyone is in a rush,” Chew said. “The school bus was painted yellow for a reason, and drivers should always be cautious when approaching or following a school bus.”